“The Godfather of The Twist,” Joey Dee, took the world by storm in 1962 when he and his band, the Starliters, released their #1 hit, “Peppermint Twist.” Since then, Dee has sold millions of records, in addition to appearing on television, in movies, and in live concerts all over the world.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Joey Dee, who shared insight into his childhood as a budding musician, recounted his rise to fame with Joey Dee and the Starliters, and filled us in on highlights of his six-decade-long career in the music business.
Spotlight Central: We understand that you’re a “Jersey Boy” who was born in Passaic. Were you raised in a musical family?
Joey Dee: Actually, I come from a family with ten children — I have nine siblings. My dad was the only one who played a musical instrument in my family. He played the accordion. My mother didn’t play any instruments. But I had a knack for music when I was in grammar school. I was blessed with a wonderful ear. I could do my scales when I was in kindergarten, and I had relative pitch — not perfect pitch — where I could pretty much tell what the various notes were that I was hearing.
A little later, I started playing the harmonica. It was the cheapest musical instrument. Back then — you could get a Hohner Marine Band harmonica for probably a quarter! Then, the first band I started was called The Thunder Trio with guitar, drums, and me playing the harmonica, and we did a lot of charity performances at YMCAs, YMHAs, etc.
Spotlight Central: How old were you when you played in that band?
Joey Dee: I would say I was about nine to about twelve years old.
Spotlight Central: You were young! What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
Joey Dee: As I mentioned, I was blessed with a big family — I was “number eight” out of ten. I was the youngest boy, with two younger sisters, but my older sisters and brothers loved big band music, so that’s the music we often listened to in the house. Martin Block had a show on WNEW radio in New York where he’d play big band music. When my sisters used to listen to it, they’d dance around the house to Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, and all the great bands of that time, and I enjoyed it, too.
I also had an exposure to Polish music. The Polish Peoples Home was on Monroe Street in Passaic, and I used to go and listen to live bands that performed there. I would sit outside — when I was around 10 or 11 years old — and listen to some of the greatest Polish bands in the country. They would come to Passaic and play for the local populace, because we had a pretty huge Polish population in Passaic.
In addition, I had a sister, Rose, who loved country and western music. She would play Rosalie Allen, who was a local radio host in New York City, and we would tune in to her broadcast in our home. I’d listen to all the great Hank Williams stuff, and Elton Britt and the Yodelers, and Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry there, so I had a great exposure to music from polkas, to country and western, to my personal favorite types of music which were R&B and doo-wop music.
Spotlight Central: Was the Starliters the first professional band you ever played in? And where did the name — and the spelling — of the group come from?
Joey Dee: It was around 1953, ’54, ’55 when I started the Starliters, and it was actually an instrumental band at first — I was 16, 17, 18 when I first started the group. I chose the spelling to make it different from the legitimate spelling of Starlighters, using “i-t-e” instead of “g-h-t.” We were doing a gig at St. Anthony’s CYO dance in Passaic, which was one of the places where we were first supported, and I didn’t have a name for the group — we were just called Joey Dee’s Band. At the time, I was a big fan of doo-wop and I loved groups like The Flamingos and The Moonglows, and I remember going outside during one of our breaks and looking up at the sky — it was a clear night; there wasn’t too much pollution back then so you could really see the stars — and I said to myself, “Moonglows…Moonlighters… Starlighters…” and I came up with “Starliters.” From that day on, we were always Joey Dee and the Starliters.
Spotlight Central: In 1958, you and the Starliters released your first single, “Lorraine,” on Little Records. How did that come about?
Joey Dee: A guy from Connecticut heard about the band and he came to New Jersey to listen to us at one of our gigs; it might have been at the Passaic Armory, because we played there every Saturday night. He came in, heard us, and said, “I’d like to make a recording of your group,” and I said, “OK.” He asked, “Do you have any material?” and I said, “No, but I could work on something,” and I wrote “Lorraine,” about a girl I walked to school with.
When we went into the recording session, we did that one. The guy also had a group called The Casinos — not the same Casinos with the hit record — but another group from Connecticut. My band backed them up on two sides, so this guy got four sides and he paid all of us, I think, around fifty bucks for everything.
Spotlight Central: We’re told you recruited your fellow Starliter, David Brigati, after the two of you met at Garfield High School. David sang lead on “Face of an Angel” on Scepter Records. Is it true that The Shirelles had something to do with you getting the group signed with Scepter?
Joey Dee: They had everything to do with it. The Shirelles were signed and had a hit record with, “I Met Him On a Sunday.” That was their first recording, and I remember thinking, “Man, we’re going to high school with them, and they have a hit record,” and that’s what really urged me on to want to get into the recording business.
The Shirelles — Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Addie Harris, and Beverly Lee — were dear friends. Beverly was an especially good friend of my sister, Angelina — they went through all the grades together in school; they were a little bit younger than I was. So I asked them, “Can you get me an audition with Florence Greenberg?” Florence was the owner of Scepter Records, and she also lived in our home town of Passaic. And they said, “We’ll talk to her and see what we can do,” because they had heard the Starliters before and they liked us.
So we went to New York City and we auditioned for Florence and Luther Dixon, who was Florence’s A&R man, and we came up with some songs. At the rehearsal, Dave Brigati and Chuck Jackson — the well-known R&B singer — wrote “Face of an Angel.” We recorded it and, in the background, I’m actually singing falsetto with The Shirelles! It was a pretty cool situation where I’m singing with these recording stars and also meeting Chuck Jackson, who was one of my musical idols.
So that’s how that all happened. Florence signed us for one year — until we ended up going to the Peppermint Lounge.
Spotlight Central: We believe it was in 1960 that you and the band were playing at a nightclub called Oliveri’s in Lodi, NJ where you were noticed by an agent, Don Davis. Can you tell us what happened?
Joey Dee: What happened was we had built a great following in New Jersey. We were New Jersey’s #1 band, I would say.
But to go back a bit, the reason I say that is because when we started the Starliters, it was strictly a musical band. I played alto saxophone at the time — and I was a background singer — but the band did instrumentals. I thought that in order to get work in nightclubs, however, we were going to need to get some lead vocalists. Being the entrepreneur that I was at the time, I went and got Rogers Freeman from a dop-wop group called The Vibra-tones and he became my lead singer. Then, we did a gig at Garfield High School where I ran into David Brigati and I heard what a lovely, wonderful voice he had, and I added him to the group — so now I had the two best singers in the world, I thought, in my group. I figured at this point there would be no problem getting gigs in nightclubs, in addition to places like the Passaic Armory, which was a big deal for us, too.
So we went on to become the hottest band in New Jersey, and that’s how we got to Oliveri’s. And, one night, Don Davis was coming back from Pennsylvania from a gig, and he stopped in and saw all of the cars in the parking lot — the place was packed; we had a wonderful following — and he came in and heard the band and he said, “How would you guys like to do a weekend in New York City?” And to anybody from Jersey — or from anywhere, really — when they were offered a gig in New York City, that was the big time. So, of course, I agreed and said, “We’d love to!”
“Well, I’ve got a Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday for you in September,” he said — this was in September of 1960 — and we went in and did the gig, and from there they liked us so much they gave the house band, Jimmy Vee and the Scamps, a permanent hiatus and we became the house band.
Spotlight Central: So you guys went in expecting to play for a weekend, and you ended up playing for 13 months?
Joey Dee: That’s exactly right.
Spotlight Central: Some people have called the Peppermint Lounge America’s “first disco.” Do you agree with them?
Joey Dee: Without a doubt. The Peppermint Lounge represented a lot of firsts. It was the first disco. It had the first go-go girls. It was, essentially, the first Studio 54.
Spotlight Central: Because it inspired other places like it to crop up all over the country?
Joey Dee: Yes, they picked up on what we were doing. Why not copy the best? And, at the time, we were the best. We had the biggest following — the most famous following. The term “jet-setters” even came from the Peppermint Lounge, because people would travel from all over the world to see us. It was amazing.
Spotlight Central: Wasn’t it all because the actress, Merle Oberon of The Scarlet Pimpernel fame, was spotted there dancing one night, a newspaper columnist reported it, and everything kind of went crazy?
Joey Dee: That’s exactly right. It happened overnight, but it took 13 months to happen overnight [laughs] — or at least a year, anyway.
Spotlight Central: We’re told that barricades and mounted police were required to keep the massive crowds out front in line.
Joey Dee: That’s true. You can look it up in the media. All the TV stations have footage somewhere, I’m sure, which will show police on horseback trying to keep the crowds in line. The Peppermint Lounge was on West 45th St. and the crowds would go all the way down from the middle of the block, past Broadway, and around the corner. They were about six to ten people deep, and they were even out into the street — it was an amazing occurrence! But the reason that happened is really thanks to two things: Cholly Knickerbocker and inclement weather.
The Peppermint Lounge was located in the heart of the theater district, and after people left the theaters where they would see their Broadway plays, they would go to their cars in the nearby garages. One night, the weather was bad, and Merle Oberon and Cholly Knickerbocker, the society columnist, were together with a couple of other people and they all decided to stop in at the Peppermint Lounge to get out of the weather and come in and have a drink. They sat down at a table, and at the time, I was doing Hank Ballard’s version of “The Twist,” which was a big part of our show. That’s when the waitresses would start dancing — and this is where the term “go-go girls” came from — because they became dancing go-go girls. And Merle Oberon got up to dance with the kids who were there in the audience that night and Cholly Knickerbocker wrote about it the next day in the newspaper and all hell broke loose.
Spotlight Central: Other celebrities started making appearances at the club, because everybody wanted to come see you. Are there any notable people whom you recall being there?
Joey Dee: It was just a “who’s who” back then. Judy Garland was there just about every night. Shirley MacLaine and Shelley Winters were there just about every night, as well, and John Wayne and Nat King Cole, came in, too.
In 1963, I was in Stockholm, Sweden with The Beatles and they said, “When we come to the States, we’re going to look you up at the Peppermint Lounge.” And, sure enough, they came in.
The Rolling Stones came in. Peter Noone from Herman’s Hermits came in. All the English groups. They didn’t want to go to the Copa. They didn’t want to go anywhere else. When they came to the States — they all told me this — they said, “We wanted to go to the Peppermint Lounge to see what was going on,” and they all did.
I hung out with so many great stars who became friends of mine there. Liberace. Sal Mineo — we sang together — I have pictures of us together on stage. It was such a wonderful experience. Jackie Kennedy came. Ted Kennedy came. Jacob Javitz, the senator from New York, came. Everybody came. It was such a wonderful experience for a kid from a blue collar family. My dad was a plumber and a night watchman and here I was, a kid from New Jersey, and people were coming from all over the world to see me and the band. It was just amazing.
Spotlight Central: And speaking of people coming in, back in 1961, a trio of girls — including Ronnie Bennett, along with her sister Estelle, and her cousin Nedra Talley — made their way into the club and asked if they could perform with you on stage. They were relatively unknown at the time, but what happened to them?
Joey Dee: They came in and asked for an opportunity to sing with us. They looked so great — and I was smart enough to know that even if they couldn’t sing too well, they looked great — and I saw them doing a little dancing off stage so I knew they could dance, too. So I said, “OK, I’ll have you come up.” Since The Shirelles gave me an opportunity, I thought it was my turn to give someone else an opportunity. So they came up and did “What I Say,” the Ray Charles song, which was a hit at the time, and they tore the house down. After that, I hired them, and they became a part of my revue and we went to places like Wildwood, NJ and Ocean City, MD, and had quite a few experiences together.
Spotlight Central: And, of course, they ended up naming their trio…
Joey Dee: Ronnie, Estelle, and Nedra called themselves The Ronettes.
Spotlight Central: You co-wrote the song, “Peppermint Twist,” as a tribute to the Peppermint Lounge and it rocketed to #1 on the charts. The song earned you a gold record which, we understand, was presented to you by Dick Clark on American Bandstand?
Joey Dee: I’m looking at it right now — and his picture is right next to it.
Spotlight Central: Wow! What was that like getting your gold record on Bandstand from Dick Clark?
Joey Dee: It just doesn’t get any better than that. In the music business, Dick Clark was the epitome of show business, at least as far as recording was concerned. We did his show, I think, 17 times in total. We were the first group to ever perform when he went live with the show coast-to-coast. He must have had a lot of faith in us.
Plus, after we met, I became great friends with him. We did the Steel Pier in Atlantic City and broke all the records there with a line-up featuring Jerry Lee Louis, Bobby Rydell, The Shirelles, The Dovells, and Johnny Maestro and the Crests. I mean, this show was spectacular — it was the biggest crowd ever at the Steel Pier, and Dick Clark was the one who hosted it.
Spotlight Central: The group signed a contract with Roulette Records and, in 1962, you starred in a movie, Hey, Let’s Twist, which made the Peppermint Lounge world famous. You played yourself in the film, but was it really a true story about your life?
Joey Dee: It wasn’t exactly my actual life story. It was a Hollywood depiction of what they thought the story should look like. They got Teddy Randazzo to play my brother and, of course, he wasn’t my brother. They also made the Peppermint Lounge a pizza parlor — or an Italian restaurant — in the movie. Eddie and I were musical, so as brothers, we had our own band and we changed the name of our place in the movie to the Peppermint Lounge, and all the celebrities came in. So it depicted how things would have been, Hollywood style, but not realistically.
Spotlight Central: And then you starred in a second movie, Two Tickets to Paris?
Joey Dee: I did. The great thing about that is, at the time, we had a producer named Harry Romm, and he signed us for two movies. The first movie was Hey, Let’s Twist for Paramount Pictures, a major studio. Hey, Let’s Twist was such a big hit in drive-in movies all over the country — for those who can remember drive-in movies — and it ended up becoming a hit all over the world.
Was it a great movie? No. Was it a Gone with the Wind-type movie? No. It was a B movie — [laughs] B for bad — but it was really a lot of fun, and I got great experience with it. And it did make money, so Harry Romm got us a second deal to do Two Tickets to Paris with Columbia Pictures, so there we were with another good company. When I did Two Tickets to Paris, it was with Charles Nelson Reilly; and Kay Medford, a big star on Broadway; and Gary Crosby, one of Bing Crosby’s sons — so I got to meet some wonderful people.
Spotlight Central: And both movies produced hit songs! The theme song from Hey, Let’s Twist and “What Kind of Love is This?” from Two Tickets to Paris both climbed the charts.
Joey Dee: That’s right.
Spotlight Central: You just mentioned that, in 1963, you were touring Europe and playing in Stockholm, Sweden, and that’s where you played with The Beatles. You didn’t open for them, however. They were your opening act, weren’t they?
Joey Dee: That’s exactly right. We were doing a tour of Europe and we played at a place called the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany, and all I heard about was “The Beatles,” “The Beatles,” “The Beatles,” because they had worked there, too; we never worked there at the same time as them, but we headlined there, as well. I had also heard that this group had such charisma and played all covers of U.S. songs — music by The Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and The Isley Brothers.
So during my tour, I had a one-nighter in Stockholm, Sweden, at the Royal Tennis Hall and my opening act was The Beatles. I was so impressed by them that I threw a party for the cast after the show. I invited everybody to our hotel — The Hotel Foresta — and The Beatles came. John Lennon didn’t stay too long, but the other three Beatles did — [laughs] they stayed until we all got drunk and happy! It was a great, great evening and that’s when they promised me they were coming to the States and said, “We’re gonna come to the Peppermint Lounge,” and they did.
Spotlight Central: You mentioned before that because The Shirelles gave you an opportunity, you wanted to do the same kind of thing for others. As a result, you helped groups like The Ronettes…
Joey Dee: Well, let’s correct that. I didn’t help them. They helped me. Because of their great talent, they made my job easy — all I had to do was show up and put the spotlight on them.
Spotlight Central: But you did give them a chance. For example, around 1964, you worked with some up-and-coming musicians — Eddie Brigati, Felix Cavaliere, and Gene Cornish — who went on to become The Rascals. What was it like working with those young performers?
Joey Dee: I saw great talent there. When I was in Europe, on that same tour with The Beatles, I had a keyboard player, Bill Callanan, who was my organ player. He had just gotten married and he was with his wife, but his wife got homesick, so he said, “I have to go home.” I needed a keyboard player and I remembered going to the Choo Choo Club in Garfield, NJ — which was a great place — where I saw a group called Felix and the Escorts, and I thought, “That kid, Felix Cavaliere, would be great.” So I called Don Davis, who was in the States, and I said, “Get ahold of Felix and fly him out to Germany” — which is where we were at the time — “and let him finish the tour with us, if he’s interested.” And Don got ahold of Felix and, sure enough, Felix came out, and that was the first time Felix was a Starliter.
Then when we came back to the States, Gene Cornish had been working with a group from Rochester, NY. They were breaking up and he was going back home, and I said, “Don’t go home! I’m opening a nightclub. and I’ll use you in my house band.”
And Eddie Brigati had sung background on “What Kind of Love Is This.” That’s the first time he was ever in a studio — I think he was only 15 years old or so at the time — so he was on “What Kind of Love Is This” with David, and Rogers Freeman, and me, and I put those guys together because I needed a group for my club, Joey Dee’s Starliter, which opened in 1965.
Spotlight Central: Is it true that the Oscar-winning actor, Joe Pesci, played in your group, too?
Joey Dee: Yes, Joe Pesci was in my band. In fact, the first movie he ever appeared in was Hey, Let’s Twist. He was a frequenter of the Peppermint Lounge, and he said, “I heard you’re doing a movie,” and I said, “Yeah, we are.” He said, “You think you could get me a spot in it?” and I said, “I’ll talk to the director, because you can dance, and I know we’re looking for some extras.”
I talked to the director, and said, “I have a friend who would like to be in the movie. Do you think we could squeeze in him?” He said, “Can he dance?” and I said, “Yeah, he’s a great dancer!” so he said, “Bring him around, and I’ll get him in the movie.” And there’s this scene in the movie where, while I’m singing “Peppermint Twist,” he mugs right up into the camera, because he knew what he was doing! Joey always knew where his future would lie.
Spotlight Central: Many are surprised to learn that you had another guitarist in your band who went on to become extremely well known. What can you tell us about him?
Joey Dee: This was in 1965. The Rascals were going out on their own so I needed a guitar player. At the time, my drummer, Jimmy Mays, who was from Chicago, knew anybody and everybody.
But let me just say this first: mine was the first integrated band, with musicians like Rogers Freeman and The Ronettes. And even before Rogers Freeman, there was David McLane, who was my guitar player — he was another high school student from Passaic — so that’s something I’m very very proud of.
But getting back to the story, I needed a guitar player so Jimmy Mays searched around and he said, “Joey. There’s this dude who’s just finished working with The Isley Brothers and Little Richard, and they couldn’t handle him.”
The reason they couldn’t handle him is because he had so much talent — and they didn’t like that — but I said, “Wow! That’s the perfect guy for us. See if you can get him to come and audition for me.”
So Jimmy said, “Joey, I just got ahold of him. His name is Maurice James, and he’s from the state of Washington.” I said, “Well, I’ll send my nephew over with a car to pick you and Maurice up and you can come to my house in Lodi, NJ,” which is where I was living at the time.
So Maurice came over and he said, “I want to play some songs for you. What do you want to hear?” And I said, “I want you to play what you like.” So he started playing some beautiful Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ music, and I said, “Wow. This cat is really good,” and then I said, “You got the gig, man.”
Later on, the whole world came to know this Maurice James guy as Jimi Hendrix.
Spotlight Central: That’s amazing! As you mentioned, yours was one of the first racially-integrated rock bands. More recently, though, you’ve integrated your performances with a number of your family members including your son, Ronnie Dee; your daughter, Jamie Lee; and even your grandson, AJ Dee. How much fun has it been being able to work with them?
Joey Dee: It’s a dream come true. They all live here in Florida. When we work up North, my oldest son, Joey, who is a keyboard player, works with us, as well; when we play places in Atlantic City, or at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut — which we do at least once or twice a year — I have the whole band and we fly everybody up. There’s also another member of my band, Jacob Dee, who’s a drummer, so my drummer and my guitar player are my two grandsons. Along with my son, Ronnie Dee, and my daughter, Jamie Lee, it’s a real family affair. But I want to tell you something. They’re all talented. I don’t hire any of them because they’re family members. I hire them because they’re good.
Spotlight Central: You’ve always hired the best!
Joey Dee: I like to think so — and I think my track record kind of proves it.
Spotlight Central: Absolutely! We’re told that, about ten years ago or so, a street corner in your hometown of Passaic, NJ was dedicated to Joey Dee and the Starliters. How gratifying was that for you — a “Jersey Boy” — to be recognized in this way?
Joey Dee: To go back to the street I grew up on — I’m talking about from when I was brought home from Passaic General Hospital to Washington Place, which is where I lived — to have that street corner on Washington Place and Columbia Avenue named after me was just awe-inspiring. That’s the place where I walked down the street when I was a little kid, and I was influenced by all those different kinds of music I told you about — the big bands, the polkas, the country, the doo-wop — and the R&B.
And when I was older, I listened to WNJR, a radio station from Newark, which was a black-only station, and that’s where I first heard “The Twist” by Hank Ballard. Then I went to a club called Ben’s Cotton Club on Frelinghuysen Ave. in Newark, NJ, because Rogers took me there. And when I heard it on the jukebox, I said, “This would be a great song for our group.” That’s when we started playing Hank Ballard’s “The Twist,” and that’s the song Merle Oberon heard when she came to the Peppermint Lounge.
So it’s just been a wonderful serendipitous travel that I took, but it was all timing and good luck.
Spotlight Central: And talent, too!
Joey Dee: And talent — but I think I was like a young Mike Tyson. I was hungry. I was dedicated. And I knew I didn’t have the talent to make it on my own, so I was going to have other people help to get me there. As a result, I went out and I got the best, and it worked.
When we went in to record “Peppermint Twist” — Henry Glover, from Roulette Records, and I wrote that song on a Sunday afternoon in October of 1961 — and when we went to record it, Henry tried David Brigati, he tried Rogers Freeman, and he tried another one of our vocalists, Larry Vernieri, singing lead and he just wasn’t happy. He said to me, “Why don’t you try it?” and I said, “I’m a background singer!” and he said, “Well, just try it,” and so I did. Henry loved it, and he said, “That’s what I want to hear!” explaining, “Sometimes, the songwriter can get to the essence of a song better than the greatest singer,” and in that case it proved to be true.
Spotlight Central: It sure did! And speaking of performing, with the current suspension of live concerts, what have you been up to?
Joey Dee: I’m currently working on my memoirs, and I hope to have a book out on my life story in the next few months. I don’t have a title yet. [Laughs] Maybe it will be called The Life and Times of Joey Dee — but stay tuned!
Spotlight Central: Is there anything else you’d like to add — or anything you’d like to say to all your fans, some of whom have been following you for 60 years now?
Joey Dee: With the holidays coming up, I’d just like to wish “Happy Holidays,” “Merry Christmas,” and “Happy Hanukkah” to all my fans out there.
Also, I want to acknowledge some of my friends who’ve helped me along the way. One of my key friends going all the way back — I’ve known him since first grade — is Anthony Joseph Sciuto. He was the drummer in my very first group which I told you about, The Thunder Trio — that’s how far back we go. He played with me all through the Armory days, at least up until his father told him he had to go to college. After college, he went to law school, became a captain in the Marine Corps, and even went on to become a superior court judge in New Jersey. And David McLane, my guitar player whom I also mentioned, became the assistant superintendent of schools in Passaic, NJ. So everybody I was associated with became successful. One of my band members — my guitarist, Vinnie Corrao — even became a musician for Ella Fitzgerald! I mean, these are fantastic people.
But I just want to end by saying that had I not been born in New Jersey — in Passaic [chokes up] — this never could have happened.
To learn more about Joey Dee and the Starliters, please go to joeydee.com.
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